Tunis, Tunisia – Human Rights Watch and Alarm Phone have confirmed that they have lost contact with a large group of Black African migrants expelled from the Tunisian city of Sfax to the Algerian border.
Another group, consisting of more than 600 migrants who were dispatched by security services to Tunisia’s border region with Libya, have since been returned to towns across southern Tunisia, where they remain under heavy guard.
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However, on Tuesday, the location of the group taken by bus from Sfax to the Algerian border remains unknown.
Mamadou, a migrant from Guinea, had been able yesterday to reach the AFP news agency, which geolocated him to Douar El Ma, an Algerian settlement close to the Tunisian border.
Mamadou was able to tell AFP that he had “neither water nor food” and that around 30 other people were in the same situation.
He could not, however, be reached today, the agency reported.
Alarm Phone – an NGO that had been in contact with the group on the Algerian border since shortly after their initial expulsion from Sfax after widespread violence following the death of a local man – also reported that it had lost contact with the group, suggesting that their phones may simply have lost charge.
However, the bodies of two men from sub-Saharan Africa have been recovered in the area where the migrants were last seen, Tunisian authorities confirmed, as they announced the opening of an investigation into what they termed a “questionable death”.
Bodies found in Algerian desert
“A first body was found at least 10 days ago in the [Algerian] Hazoua desert and another last night, ” Nizar Skander, spokesperson for the court in the southeast town of Tozeur, told AFP today.
Communications from the group prior to their disappearance paint a harrowing picture of the conditions the expelled Black migrants were subjected to. The region where they were deposited is largely unpopulated, with only a few communities clustering around the oasis that marks the area.
#Tunisie : Entre 150 et 200 migrants africains noirs (au moins) ont été expulsés depuis le 4 juillet (au moins) par les forces de sécurité tunisiennes près de la frontière algérienne.
Ils se retrouvent pris au piège, refoulés d’un côté comme de l’autre #Algérie @hrw pic.twitter.com/UegKEPlvjq
— Salsabil Chellali (@SaChellali) July 9, 2023
Prior to their disappearance, the group told NGO workers that the Tunisian police had taken their passports and smashed their phones before depositing them in the desert.
Alarm Phone said that one woman in the group had given birth while two members had to be left behind.
Alarm Phone was contacted by several other groups deported from #Tunisia to the deserted border region with #Algeria. The police took passports & phones, left them without water or food. They are lost in the desert and fear for their lives. They are urgently asking for help!
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) July 7, 2023
Conditions within Sfax reached a breaking point last Monday, when attacks by locals upon the swelling numbers of Black migrants arriving in the city resulted in three Cameroonian men being arrested following the fatal stabbing of 41-year-old Nizar Amri.
The violence that followed, likened by one onlooker to “a civil war”, eventually led to the involvement of the security services and the mass expulsion of the Black migrants to the borders, a move characterised by the legal advocacy group Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) as contravening international law.
Tunisia is currently in negotiations for a 1 billion euro ($1.1bn) aid package from the European Union to support its failing economy and better police its borders. Speaking last week, a spokesperson for the bloc said they were monitoring the situation closely.